Aliette de Bodard has rightfully been steadily gaining fans and awards for nearly 10 years now, since having her first story accepted to Interzone in 2007. French-Vietnamese, Aliette lives in Paris with her family and works as a computer engineer as well as a writer. Her teenage years were spent in London, where she discovered SFF for the first time. Since her first published story, Aliette has published a variety of stories and novels, including the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, which are dark police procedurals set in the Aztec era where the gods are real, and my personal favourite, the novella On a Red Station, Drifting, set in Aliette's Xuya universe, a future where Chinese and Vietnamese cultures are the dominant space powers. Her most recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings, a grand and tragic fantasy novel set in a post-magical war Paris populated by fallen angels, was released to great acclaim and is absolutely worth picking up if you haven't already. A murder mystery with a gothic magical air, Aliette weaves investigation and romance together along with both angelic and Vietnamese mythology.
Aliette explained that the writing process for most of her stories and books so far has been slightly easier to keep track of, but that the large cast of characters and system of fallen angel Houses (like guilds or clans) in the devastated Paris she created for The House of Shattered Wings required some more work. "I specifically did something I've never done before, but I made a Bible. I can keep track of the universe and mindmap and mood but the issue I had was the characters... the Bible made me realise that I had given two characters the same name!" The main house of the story, House Silverspires, located near the ruined Notre Dame, was once ruled by the most famous fallen angel of them all – Morningstar. As he has been missing for decades, the now embattled house is run by Selene, who with the support of her fallen angel archivist girlfriend Emmanuelle, is striving to keep her house intact.
In this issue, Lucy interviews Aliette de Bodard about her work, world-building and writing processes.
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Although not the only romantic pairing in the book, Selene and Emmanuelle are a particular favourite of Aliette's. "I think they're a very quiet power couple that compliment each other really nicely in the sense that one of them is the really emotional, more maternal one, and the other is emotional but not likely to show it to other people… Selene has a sort of harshness". When discussing the wide ranging diversity of the characters in the novel, I asked Aliette about how much she had tried to include lesbian and gay relationships, as well as mixed race pairings. For some of the couples she had to think about the implied meanings and well-worn gender stereotypes, for example Asmodeus (a somewhat psychotic leader of a rival house) and his boyfriend. "I couldn't make up my mind if I gave Asmodeus a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and the girlfriend ended up being a little too noir trope-ish, as the girlfriend of a powerful, evil man, so I thought, let's not." But although that couple took some consideration, Aliette was surprised by something: "Until you mentioned it, I didn't realise that Selene [white] and Emmanuelle [Black] were inter-race!"
When I mentioned that I appreciated that no one in the book commented on the gay relationships, or the inter-racial relationship, and that none of them were used as a point of tension in regard to the book's society. Aliette pointed out that, "When dealing with marginalization or oppression, your world-building either has prejudice much the same as in our world, or these relationships are seen as business as usual and no one comments on them. It's not so great when the book hinges on the big issue being the gay couple. And the racial thing, which I feel more qualified to comment on, it gets exhausting, because you get told that you can have a racial issues narrative, but you also get told you can't have a narrative where the person of colour goes on to save the world." Aliette also likes the fact that a fantasy setting gives more latitude to create a world free of the types of prejudice against oppressed groups that we see in ours. Not only can this create a more positive world, it can also feel less tired. "It’s a variety problem. There’s nothing wrong with [having prejudice as an issue in a novel], but the problem is when it’s the go-to default". Aliette has gone on to write a prequel short story about Selene and Emmanuelle’s first meeting, Of Books, And Earth, and Courtship, back when Selene was Morningstar’s star student. It’s a bit of a crime caper, as well as a romance, as bookish Emmanuelle finds herself drawn to Selene in her masculine clothing when they’re sent on a mission together. Fans of The House of Shattered Wings can pick it up as a low-priced ebook in order to spend more time with the characters.
Even though Aliette says she feels less qualified to discuss queer politics and depictions of queer romances, this particular pairing feels realistic and lovely. She says as a writer, "You have to write things you’re not familiar with otherwise none of us would set pen to paper." However, being mindful of cultural appropriation is paramount. "I think some people don’t realise how long it takes to research other cultures. There’s a shift of values, of ways of thinking that you need to do when you do it." The dangers lie in relying on tiresome stereotypes and tropes instead of putting real effort into making three-dimensional characters. "You often feel like they’re white people in costume," Aliette says in regard to white people writing people of colour. "You have to be really, really careful when you’re further away from your culture or you’re likely to drag in some cultural clichés, like the Asian martial arts master, or the Native American in tune with nature." And being a person of colour herself doesn’t excuse her from research. "I know from time to time I have to stop and look at the things I am doing. So it’s very important to stop and think. I guess it sometimes frustrates me that people underestimate the fact that you have to do a lot of research."
One aspect of Aliette’s writing that she did not have to research from scratch is her use of Vietnamese mythology. "Chinese and Vietnamese mythology is what I grew up with. To me, when you say dragon, my reflex is not 'it breathes fire and it flies'. I was told stories about dragons living in the water and causing rain." She came up with her idea of the Xuya universe around 2008. "I didn’t actually write about Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese myth until quite late… partly it was the feeling it wasn’t real fantasy and partly it was the feeling of sheer nail biting terror that my maternal family was going to see it!" One of the things I personally like about the universe of On a Red Station, Drifting is the combination of religion and technology: in a SF version of ancestor worship, a religion that many eastern cultures subscribe to, people can be "modded" by having their dead ancestors' consciousnesses embedded in their brains. And whilst I suspect many westerners would be horrified at the idea of their great-grandmothers being present all the time, in the book, which is populated just by Chinese and Vietnamese people, having the implants is seen as a great honour. The combination of spirituality and technology was a conscious decision by Aliette: "What I think of as mainly a western model of development is that religion recedes as science comes to the fore… there’s no reason why a different culture wouldn’t have a different opinion on the matter… it doesn’t strike me as being more or less realistic, it’s not a value judgement." What I loved about it is that it shows the possibilities of SF when it’s done well – take an aspect of human culture that’s hundreds of years old and imagine what it’s like hundreds of years into the future. The evolution that Aliette has conceived of for ancestor worship is brilliant and inspired.
I didn’t actually write about Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese myth until quite late… partly it was the feeling it wasn’t real fantasy and partly it was the feeling of sheer nail biting terror that my maternal family was going to see it!
Buy On a Red Station,
Buy The House of Shattered Wings
As much as I love On a Red Station, Drifting and the Xuya universe, I am happy to have to be satisfied with Aliette’s next project being a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings. She’s currently working on The House of Binding Thorns, with a release date sometime in 2017. I asked her for some book recommendations of things she’s read recently to tide us over while we wait. "Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown [on this issue’s Bookshelf] and Ken Liu of course, but also Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf. It’s noir, alternative history, with the point of divergence being the Biafran Civil War in Nigeria. It skewers the colonialist perspective." So, check them out, as well as Aliette’s books if you haven’t already.
Read more about Aliette and her work at her website: aliettedebodard.com